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Wine and food matching at Benares
Can high-end Indian food work with wine?

Website: www.benaresrestaurant.com

Benares is a seriously upmarket, Michelin-starred Indian restaurant run by celebrity chef Atul Kochhar. Together with his head sommelier, Costanzo Scala, he hosted a press dinner to demonstrate how well serious Indian food can pair with wine.

‘There’s a common misconception that Indian food doesn’t go with wine’, says Atul Kochhar. Too true: it’s one that I think I’ve shared in the past. But Costanzo has been working hard with customers to try to persuade them this isn’t the case. ‘When I started here everyone wanted beer or water with their food’, he recalls. ‘After two months I began to wonder about the point of being a sommelier here’. Fortunately for him, this has changed.

Cosanzo thinks that with Indian food, you really need a good sommelier to guide you. ‘There’s very little margin for error when you try to match Indian food and wine. Any ingredient could respond in a different way to the wine’.

Costanzo’s previous appointments include China Tang at The Dorchester, so he has experience of working with Asian flavours than can be challenging for wine. ‘Indian food takes it to another dimension’, he says. ‘There are so many things to consider. The sequence of dishes is a challenge, as is the build up of spice on the palate’. He finds that it’s just not possible to stick with one wine through a multicourse Indian menu, so going by the glass is the best option. ‘Indian food has lots of personality, so you don’t want anything too powerful’.

Costanzo details three different approaches for pairing wine with Indian food.

  • Do you like Indian spices? The Indian palate often wants a wine that is mineralic and acidic, which adds to the spices and brings them out.
  • The western palate tends to prefer combinations of flavour. Creamy wines coat the palate. Buttery whites combines with the flavours of Indian food quite well.
  • Something to calm down the spice: go for something sweet such as Pinot Gris or Riesling or Gewürztraminer that have some residual sugar.  

Below are the full notes on the wines tried, and my impression of how well the pairings went.

Qupe Roussanne 2005 Central Coast, California
Really intense, nutty and broad with notes of vanilla and toast. Thick textured and bold – a bit oily even? Viscous, rich and structured. 90/100

This was a magical match with Mallayetti Kachipeu, a curry leaf and tarragon infused lobster rillet. The intensity and oiliness of the wine made for a brilliant, synergistic combination.

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2006 Waipara, New Zealand
Cherry and berry fruit nose with some herbiness. Bright but intense, with some attractive meaty depth on the palate. Fruit driven and nicely balanced with good acidity and texture. 91/100

Served with Tandoor Paneer, a Tandoori grilled Indian cottage cheese, which is wild, smoky and spicy: the Pinot is a bit overwhelmed but with its rich texture works well. A solid match.

Champagne Delamotte Brut Rosé NV
Lovely lively, grapey fizz with good acid and toasty notes under the subtle strawberry fruit. Quite delicate and really attractive. 91/100

Kadara Kedka, a soft-shell crab with squid salad, doesn’t have too much flavour, and the wine’s acidity cuts through well. Good match.

Sula Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Nashik, India
Fresh green herby nose with minerally methoxypyrazine nose. The palate has nice bright fruit. Herby and minerally with good acidity. Crisp, fresh and very stylish. 88/100

Served with Tandoori Machchi (tandoor grilled monkfish tail with coconut rice), the crisp minerality and gentle herbiness of the wine work really well with gently sweet-spiced food.

Charles Melton Rose of Virginia 2008 Barossa, Australia
Deep pink/red colour. Sweet, vivid raspberry and cherry fruit with a nice rich texture and bold, sweet juicy character. Very smooth and pure. 90/100

Served with Gosht Ke Shammi (ground lamb patties served with cucumber yoghurt). The richness of texture and sweet fruit of the rose put up a good fight against the spice and yoghurt. An OK match.

Mont de Toit 2003 Wellington, South Africa
A red blend from the Cape showing rich, bold sweet blackcurrant fruit. Quite lush and pure with a slightly green herby edge. Smooth with real personality – a ripe yet sophisticated wine. 91/100

An interesting combination here: the dish was Tawa Jhinga, which is pan-griddled tiger prawns with curry leaf, onion and tomato sauce. It’s a rich, spicy dish but the sweet bold fruit of the red has the texture to match the flavours. There’s a degree of synergy, with the subtle herbiness of the wine matching the subtle herbiness of the dish. Good combination.

Covela Escolha 2004 Minho, Portugal
Savoury and blackcurranty with some minerality and raspberry freshness. Very fruit focused, and showing good acidity. A lovely wine. 90/100

A bit brave to pair this red with Meen Molly (pan-seared sea bass with coconut and ginger), and the focused fruit of the wine holds up well against the high-toned spiciness accompanying the sea bass. A weird combination, but not bad.

Ridge Montebello Chardonnay 2004 Sonoma, California
Nutty, smooth, toasty and intense with smooth creamy character. Nicely integrated oak with lovely balance and a hint of minerality. Sophisticated stuff. 92/100

The creamy Chardonnay is quite rich and accompanies the Murg Makhani (chicken tikka simmered in mild tomato and fenugreek sauce) alright, but it’s not a great match: there’s just so much flavour in the food.

Cabidos Cuvée St Clément Petit Manseng 2004 Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan, France
Bright, grapey, herby and sweet with a nice texture. Lemony fresh with a really bright character. Lovely sweet wine. 90/100

This sort of worked with the Marsalae Aur Santrae Ki Chocolate (five spice chocolate pudding with tarragon and blood orange), as much as these sorts of dessert pairings work at all.

Conclusions? First, I really enjoyed the food and wine combination. It was a great meal, but not inexpensive - if we had been paying, the bill would have been £65 for the tasting menu alone, or £95 with matched wines, or £159 for the prestige wine and food combination. Second, I think some of the wines did work very well with the dishes they were paired with, although you have to shift your mentality a bit and instead of choosing wine s you love, you have to think quite carefully about which ones would work with the food - in this sense, there's far less margin for error when you are trying to match with Indian food. 

Wines tasted 09/08  
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